September 24, 2014

The Right Stuff

As three-hour-long epics go, The Right Stuff (1983) is a pretty good one, bolstered by the humanized performances of a slew of talented actors portraying the men and women involved in America's race against the Russians to get outer space. The film--which was written and directed by Philip Kaufman and adapted from Tom Wolfe's best-selling book--finds a surprising balance in a story so charged with cultish nationalism. I've never been particularly interested in planes or pilots, and when I lived in Orlando, was always blasé about the goings-on at NASA just forty-five minutes away at Cape Canaveral. When people would talk excitedly about the latest rocket launch, I felt bored. This film shows exactly how exciting and meaningful it was to be a part of the space race.

As a director, Kaufman is one of the best to come out of the 70s, and The Right Stuff should probably have been his piéce de résistance, except that it wasn't successful at the box office, barely breaking even (or not) depending on which budget calculation you go with. (It was made for around 20 million, and grossed around 20 million.) Kaufman had already established himself as a fine director with the impressive 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Right Stuff isn't as canny as that film, but it's certainly as well-made and well-acted, and tries very hard to show us the many perspectives at play during this little chunk of big history. And it has a sense of humor. The grandiosity that Kaufman puts on the screen is always accompanied by a wink.

The film begins in 1947 at a military air base in the California desert, where Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) determines to break the "sound barrier," a phrase that essentially meant doom for an aircraft once it reached a certain altitude. Yeager's accomplishment (spoiler alert: he breaks it) sets in motion the events of the film which take place into the 1960s when the seven "chosen" astronauts make their various orbits into space. One of Kaufman's most adept accomplishments as director is his seamless merging of actual documentary footage of news coverage with fictionalized footage of the actors. In that sense, The Right Stuff often feels like a plucky documentary about the space age. It would have been propaganda in the hands of a less literate filmmaker. 

One of Kaufman's best instincts as director is to consider the point-of-view of the pilot's wives. On one hand, this story is every bit a tale of male achievement in a very traditional power structure, but Kaufman has a sense of realism--not to mention compassion--for the "women behind the men." Is the film accurate in its portrayal of the men and their wives? That isn't for me to say. But as a piece of narrative, The Right Stuff succeeds in multitudinous ways at being both honest and insightful about marital relations in the military and the American obsession with a kind of mythologized machismo. What's so genius is that the film mixes its criticism with its reverence in a way that feels genuine. And yet it's always sure-footed. Kaufman wants to give us a ra-ra American epic, but he wants us to think about it too, and layers his criticisms in subtle ways that allow us to come across them on our own. Otherwise it would be preachy or condescending.

As John Glenn, Ed Harris--plucked from cameo roles and TV by George Romero in the 1981 knights-on-motorcycles indie film Knightriders--shows what he's made of as an actor here. Harris is the kind of all-American actor who's very easy to root for, and his performance as Glenn paints him as a thoughtful man who took very seriously his unexpected new role as a public figure. The equally fine supporting cast includes: Dennis Quaid, Lance Henriksen, Barbara Hershey, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Charles Frank (as Scott Carpenter), David Clennon, and Donald Moffat (as Lyndon Johnson).

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